An epic mission, to preserve the ancient books of Timbuktu

Timbuktu — In the studio of the Ahmed-Baba Institute for Higher Islamic Studies and Research, time seems to have slowed down. As the dust and the sound of paintbrushes float on the paper, six students hold in their hands one of the region’s most precious heritages.

Ceremonially, they repeat the same gestures: lift the pages, one by one, with the tip of a fine wooden spatula, then, with the flat of the brush, rid the inks and age-old papers of dust.


They are about thirty, come from all over the country to be part of the second promotion of professionals of the book and the ancient manuscript within this emblematic establishment of Timbuktu.

Mohamed Diagayete, Director General of the Ahmed-Baba Institute, says of the city’s unique role in central Mali: “In Timbuktu, there are manuscripts from all over the region, witnesses to the richness of the exchanges that took place here in a time Beyond the safeguarding of these manuscripts, it is a question of highlighting the history which they tell. They are wells of science and knowledge, dealing with astronomy, medicine, arithmetic, theology or law.”

past greatness

Since 2019, Diagayete has led the training of codicologists, curators, librarians and digitization leaders who will be responsible for keeping this heritage alive in the future.

The thousand-year-old city, which was a crossroads of exchanges and knowledge in medieval times, saw an influx of researchers and apprentices from all over the world who came to train. The manuscripts, whose origins go back to Niger to Mauritania via Algeria, bear witness to the past greatness of the region.

The manuscripts belong to the whole world

“Timbuktu has shone brightly in history, and the crisis it has been going through for several years has caused it to fall far behind. It is extremely important that these manuscripts, witnesses of this glorious history, be revalued and adapted to the current context,” said Boubacar Ould Hamadi, president of the interim authority of the Timbuktu region.

The valuable works, which date back to the 9th century, provide a historical correction to the redundant narrative that has always reduced Africa to mere oral traditions, robbing the continent of its rich written history. This ethnocentric version is contradicted by hundreds of thousands of pages of travel diaries, poems and scientific treatises.

Long left at the mercy of time and wear and tear, these relics have been the subject of a safeguarding plan since 2015, under the impetus of several international partners such as UNESCO. At the time, precious codices were piled up between Timbuktu and Bamako. Marked by the passage of dust, insects and bad weather, the manuscripts must once again be saved.

Manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Center.

UNESCO Mali Office / Wikipedia

Works destroyed

In 2012, many works, still preserved in Timbuktu, left the north of the country in extraordinary conditions under the occupation of jihadist groups.

“Some were hidden in the neighborhoods, others left for Bamako on carts, donkeys, canoes, trucks,” says Mr. Alkhamiss, head of the conservation laboratory. The manuscripts do not belong to Timbuktu, they belong to the That is why so much effort has gone into saving them.

At the time, the threat was quite different: that of heavily armed fighters aboard vans displaying the flags of Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. The insolent were punished and many cultural and heritage assets were lost.

“There were a few miracles,” says Mohamed Diagayete. Those who saved the manuscripts took all the risks.

While around 4,203 works were destroyed during the occupation, 300,000 of them are still kept in Bamako, waiting for the security situation to stabilize in the north. The Timbuktu Institute has about 10,000.

“When they are handled, the manuscripts are subject to deterioration. If they degenerate, it is a heritage and a knowledge lost forever”, warns Mr. Alkhamiss in front of his apprentices, whose gestures he inspects with a watchful eye. “What we have here is the history of Africa, the history of the world. We cannot let this heritage go to waste. If it disappears, the history no longer exists.”

Brush strokes and patience

To train the future guardians of the manuscripts, the institution receives around 357,000 euros in funding from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) and support from the University of Hamburg.

“We start by dusting off and storing the manuscripts. Once this heritage is safe, we will have to open its content to the public, in particular by digitizing it and carrying out an important inventory work”, explains Maria Luisa Russo, Italian expert in old books and coordinator in Mali of the project from the University of Hamburg, which has been piloting the program since 2015.

Many have been trafficked and left the country or continent

Sheltered from light and bad weather behind the high earthen walls of the Ahmed-Baba Institute, the books are now in the hands of the students. Once the potential pests have been eliminated, by dint of brushes and patience, the bulk of the work remains to be done. Their writings, mostly in Arabic, must be digitized in order to open up the immemorial secrets of “the city of 333 saints” to the world.

Deputy Director Abdoulaye Cissé explains how more than 10,000 manuscripts were hidden and saved at the Ahmed Baba Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies and Research in Timbuktu, northern Mali.

Deputy Director Abdoulaye Cissé explains how more than 10,000 manuscripts were hidden and preserved at the Ahmed Baba Center in Timbuktu, northern Mali.

United Nations Mission in Mali

Access to researchers

“The manuscripts are an integral part of the culture of Timbuktu. They tell the story of the city, the story of the scholars who came here, the story of its saints. Timbuktu is called “the mysterious city” and the manuscripts contain part of these mysteries,” explains Professor Maïga, head of the institute’s IT modules.

The next step will be to catalog them by subject in order to provide access to national and international researchers.

“They represent a considerable contribution to the historical study of the many disciplines they address,” says Russo.

But “there is a long way to go,” warns Russo. To date, it is impossible to quantify the number of manuscripts that Mali has: “In Timbuktu, Bamako, Djenné and Gao, many of them are still in private family collections. Many were trafficked and left the country or the continent”.

Private collections can be kept in inadequate conditions and much needs to be done to raise awareness. Still under threat, the secular manuscripts, once opened to the public, will contribute to the influence of the “Pearl of the Desert”, an eternal city of knowledge and traditions.

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